Nolan Finley and Stephen Henderson are the consummate odd couple.
Finley is white; Henderson is Black. Finley is conservative; Henderson is liberal. When it comes to politics, they couldn’t be further apart.
But they do have some things in common: Longtime journalism careers in Detroit and a belief that now, more than ever, civility is the key to healing the nation’s deep and acrimonious political divide.
“Nolan and I have figured out a way to stay friends and to have lots of places where we can interact with each other that don’t have to do with politics, but we can also argue still about politics and policy, argue strenuously, passionately, and never get to the point where we just figure we can’t talk to each other anymore,” Henderson told a session at NCSL’s Base Camp 2023.
“This win-at-all-costs kind of culture that we live in, where the goal of so many arguments and so many political exchanges is to shut the other side down ... that’s not a reasonable expectation.”
—Stephen Henderson, The Civility Project
The pair created The Civility Project to share their strategies for maintaining civility without sacrificing their personal views—or their friendship.
“We are in a very dangerous place in our country today because we have allowed our individual beliefs, our identities, to sort of separate, to break us into parts, into tribes, that make it harder for us to come together as a whole,” says Finley, editorial page editor at the Detroit News. “We have allowed partisanship to trump principle, our personal identities to break us into separate groups that don’t talk much to each other. It’s not a healthy place for people, certainly not a healthy place for our democracy, and our country is suffering for it.”
Finley recalled being at a political policy conference with Henderson and being approached by two conservative women who saw the two journalists talking together. “They said, ‘How could you be friends with him? He is just so awful. We just hate him.’ And those words hit me really like a punch because they were so vehement and so convinced of their hatred of this person who had become my close friend. And I said, ‘Have you ever talked to him?’”
He invited the women have a chat with Henderson—and they did. An hour and a half later, Finley had to drag Henderson away from their conversation. The women, he says, now thought Henderson was wonderful.
“And I thought to myself, nothing about them changed in those 90 minutes. Nothing about Steve changed in those 90 minutes. They didn’t come to any sort of consensus in their opinions. They didn’t change one another. But what had happened was, they’d taken the time to get to know one another as individuals rather than as the opinions they held as individuals.”
Henderson, now executive editor at the nonprofit news site BridgeDetroit, says “dropping assumptions” is one of the first pillars of civility. “So often, when we meet people who we disagree with, we jump to all kinds of conclusions about who they are, what they believe and what they think. In The Civility Project, we talk about not doing that, resisting the instinct to do that and getting to know somebody before you start judging who they are, really getting to know what they think and why they think it.”
Check Your Expectations
The second pillar: setting reasonable expectations when you are having an argument with somebody about politics. “This win-at-all-costs kind of culture that we live in, where the goal and so many arguments and so many political exchanges is to shut the other side down, to shut ’em up, to make them feel embarrassed for what they believe and to prove somehow that we’re superior to them—that’s not a reasonable expectation,” Henderson says.
The pair say a reasonable expectation in a conversation or an argument is learning more about what that other person thinks and why: Where do they get the things that they believe? What things happened in their lives that led them to believe that being a liberal or being a conservative is the right way to solve problems?
The third pillar: listening. That means active listening, something most people probably don’t practice in their daily lives. Henderson says he has two tests to determine if he’s really listening. “After someone is done saying what they’re saying, could I repeat it back to them? Not word for word, but reflecting genuinely what they were trying to say to me.”
The second test: Does he have questions about what he just heard? “When I’m really listening to somebody, I find myself being curious about what they’re saying. I want to know more about what they’re saying. Maybe they said something I didn’t quite catch. Maybe they said something I didn’t expect them to say. Following up on that, going in and saying, well, hold on a second. Tell me why you believe this. Where did you get that? I would like to know more about it.”
Finley says they find that in dealing with incivility in settings such as school board meetings, “The biggest thing separating people is that they don’t listen to each other. They’re not hearing what the other person is saying. And basically, people want to be heard. And when they feel like they’re not heard, they hunker down.”
The final pillar: investing in the relationship beyond the political exchange itself.
“Think of how many families are dealing with people who won'’ speak to each other anymore because of politics,” Henderson says. “Think of how many communities are divided that way. Since Nolan and I have been working together and arguing, neither one of us has ever gotten up from the table and said, ‘You know what? That’s it. I’m done with this guy.’ That’s a conscious choice, and I think we have to make those kinds of conscious choices in order to give these relationships and these interactions space to work out the way in which we disagree, so that we can have these arguments and that they don’t do damage to the larger relationships.”
Finley says they have a saying at The Civility Project: “A conversation is not a competition.” If you walk into a room where you intend to have a conversation with a person who’s different than you, don’t expect to convert them.
“I’ll assure you, based on my experiences with Steve, it’s not possible to convert another person to your views by sitting there hollering at them and beating on the table,” Finley says. “So sit down with a genuine intention to learn and to share views rather than to convert, rather than to persuade, rather than to preach. Nobody enjoys getting preached to.”
Lisa Ryckman is NCSL’s associate director of communications.